Maybe you can recall those days where you had to seriously cook on a budget. Maybe that has influenced your cooking to this day. A sampling of friends reveals some of the classic budget meals- spaghetti, buttered noodles, peanut butter and jelly, beans and rice, cereal for dinner, English muffin pizzas, grilled cheese and tomato soup, hotdogs, macaroni and cheese and the classic one: your parents’ house. My brother’s very creative answer to this question- Raman noodles mixed with popcorn and tuna (his go to meal while in college, I learned)- reminded me of one of my own more inventive periods in the kitchen.
The first year that I actually lived on my own- really on my own- in my own apartment, solo, was the year that I took some time to decide what career I should purse and was lucky enough to have lined up a morning job in Stowe and an afternoon job in Montpelier exploring two possible options. This period was great for career considerations but not so great for the wallet as I was earning intern level wages. I probably spent most of my paycheck on gas driving back and forth to Montpelier.
My apartment was a house that an uncle had generously let to me for $100 a month, built circa 1880s that had nearly original electrical work. Peeling back the layers of carpet and flooring in the living room was like a study in fashionable floorings throughout history. I was excited to discover wide plank wood floors beneath it all until winter hit and I realized that all those layers of carpeting had a serious insulation factor and that the wide plank floors came also with wide gaps between boards that quickly led to a rapid filling and draining of the propane tank. Around January I realized just how little money I was making and just how much was going to living expenses.
This lead to an experimentation in how long I could make the groceries in my fridge and pantry last. After one paycheck I went to the grocery store and stocked up on the types of groceries that I thought might be able to last but still had some nutritional value. It led to some pretty inventive cooking. I cannot say that I ever created a meal worth making for company during this period or that I didn’t occasionally happen to end up at my parents house around dinner time, but I did managed to avoid the grocery store for a little over a month. The expert trick seemed to be casseroles, frozen vegetables and making enough for leftovers. Lentil soup with onion and rosemary, tuna pasta with dill on a bed of greens, white bean and onion soup were some of my new specialties.
I was proud that I managed the feat and lasted as long as I did. The experience has probably informed the way I like to cook even now- to open the fridge or cupboard, assess what is there and address the challenge of picking the ingredients that together would create something nutritious and flavorful.
One of my best meals from this period was a lasagna style casserole made chiefly of polenta, spinach, black bean and cheddar cheese. It wasn’t that bad. And there were ways to make this meal cheaper- make your black beans from dry beans instead of a can, use frozen spinach instead of fresh, make the polenta instead of using store bought. I include the recipe below but leave the dollar saving decisions to you.
Polenta (cut into ½ inch slices)
Cut the polenta into ½ inch slices or, if you are making it from scratch, spread it ½ thick when you lay it out.
In a casserole pan, layer the polenta, then spinach, then blackbeans, then sour cream and cheese and green chiles. Add a second layer of polenta, blackbeans and spinach. Top with cheese. Cook in the oven at 350 until warm and the cheese on top is melted. Enjoy!